The headline result of Round 12 in the Gallagher Premiership saw Sale Sharks force their way into playoff contention with a 24-18 win over Saracens at the AJ Bell, with the reigning champions well-beaten in the north-west.
There were markedly different fortunes for another London side in the north this weekend, as Harlequins romped to a 38-17 victory over Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park, ending their recent away day blues. A bonus point win for Leicester Tigers also set them up for a strong second half of the season.
We have rounded up the top performers from the round below, but do you agree with our calls?
(* denotes RugbyPass Index score)
- Jonah Holmes, Leicester Tigers (67)
The former scrum-half turned wing turned full-back was in fine form at Welford Road on Saturday and his involvements in the back line on attack were a big part of why Tigers looked so incisive and dangerous. He showed the full array of running lines against Gloucester, coming in hard and straight, stepping back inside and even running some nice loops around the back of ball-carriers. He took his try well on a no-look pass from Matt Toomua and set up Jonny May for one of his two scores as well.
- Jonny May, Leicester Tigers (75)
Arguably the toughest call this weekend, with both Denny Solomona and Bryce Heem also deserving of the 14 jersey. Between May’s brace and the efforts of those other two, the trio scored or assisted on six tries this weekend. May just caught the eye that fraction more, with his kick chase and work in the midfield doing just enough to push him above the other two, although there was very little in it. The only thing that detracted from the performance was the late withdrawal of Ollie Thorley for Gloucester pre-match, in what should have been one of the box office match-ups of the weekend.
- Sam James, Sale Sharks (68)
James was pushed hard by Joe Marchant and this spot could have gone either way. The Sale man was excellent at the AJ Bell, however, and with the exception of one kick that went out on the full after he had made a break, he didn’t put a foot wrong all game. His mixture of short pops and accurate long passes caused problems for the Saracens defence and his threat as a runner was constantly evident, with James happy to take the space and exploit any disconnects in the defensive line that Saracens’ blitz gave him.
How about this one-two with @DennySolomona? ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) January 5, 2019
- James O’Connor, Sale Sharks (70)
The chemistry between O’Connor and James seems to be growing by the day and it has been a significant factor in Sale’s rise up the table. The pair dovetailed excellently on Friday and seemed always to be creating space for each other, running incisive lines and showing great awareness of where the other was on the pitch. For the second week in a row, O’Connor was again a great creative spark plug for Sale at inside centre.
- Gabriel Ibitoye, Harlequins (51)
A breakout performance at this level for Ibitoye, who showed he can more than backup the potential and talent he has previously shown in the age-grades. He helped create his own try with neat hands to Mike Brown, before racing up the pitch and getting himself involved in the midfield on second phase to strike through the heart of the Newcastle defence. The wing also set up Jack Clifford’s try with a nice step inside, creating space for the flanker, and then delivering a pinpoint offload.
?Gathers the loose ball to start the move
? Runs it in from 30 metres to end it
— Harlequins ? (@Harlequins) January 6, 2019
- George Ford, Leicester Tigers (71)
One telegraphed pass and intercept aside, Ford was in excellent form at Welford Road, pulling the strings on a much-needed bonus point win for Leicester. He was on the same wavelength as Toomua and Manu Tuilagi throughout the game and with those threats holding the defence outside him, he was unafraid to take off on his own and gouge the Gloucester defence as a runner. It was just reward for the work he had done creating opportunities for others that he was the man to go over the try that sealed the bonus point.
The pace of the game showed when @J0nnyMay intercepted and had to wait for back-up ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) January 6, 2019
- Faf de Klerk, Sale Sharks (76)
Ben Youngs came close to completing an all-Leicester half-back combination, whilst Cobus Reinach was also in the mix, but de Klerk was pivotal in Sale’s upsetting of Saracens at the AJ Bell. He wasn’t his usual effervescent self with ball in hand and that wasn’t surprising, given the tightness of the contest, but some of the defensive reads he made were momentum-shifting, and potentially even game-changing. He stopped a number of Saracens attacks dead with his opportunistic shooting out of the line and he certainly gave the north Londoners a taste of their own defensive medicine.
- Joe Marler, Harlequins (67)
A nod to Ellis Genge, who had a good game at Welford Road, but Marler turned in an equally strong showing up at Kingston Park. His strong work at the set-piece helped give Harlequins a solid foundation from which to launch their dangerous back line, whilst he put in the work in the loose, too, keeping his side resolute around the fringes in defence.
- Max Crumpton, Harlequins (56)
It is no coincidence that Quins’ long-term lineout issues look lessened when Crumpton is on the pitch. The former Bristol Bears hooker was again in fine form at the set-piece on Saturday and even came up with a try on a neat move at an early lineout, throwing short to Alex Dombrandt and then receiving the ball back after the back rower had broken the first line of defence. He’s not a ‘star’ name, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential player this season than Crumpton.
- WillGriff John, Sale Sharks (72)
The big tighthead definitely enjoyed his tussle with Mako Vunipola on Friday night and, at the set-piece at the least, got the better of the battle. The Sale scrum had the ascendancy and John’s strong, square engagement had a significant role to play in that. He kept himself busy in the loose, too, making a couple of big tackles around the fringes that helped deny the visitors the usual front-foot ball they can generate on the pick and go.
- Mike Fitzgerald, Leicester Tigers (64)
It was a very compelling match-up between Fitzgerald and Gerbrandt Grobler at Welford Road and whilst Grobler broke off some eye-catching carries, it was arguably Fitzgerald’s performance which played a larger role in deciding the match. The Kiwi lock was tireless in defence and seemed always to be on hand to deal with the likes of Grobler, Ben Morgan and Gloucester’s other power carriers. If Leicester bended defensively without breaking, Fitzgerald was that man bringing the resolute stopping power inside the Tigers’ half.
- Jonny Hill, Exeter Chiefs (87)
The return of Hill is a welcome one for Exeter, who have missed his powerful carrying and lineout ability over the last month. He performed both of those roles very well against Bristol, who arguably shaded the physicality and set-piece battles overall. Hill just kept things ticking over smoothly for Exeter, when there was a real threat of them becoming flustered from the aggressiveness of Bristol’s defence.
- Freddie Clarke, Gloucester (72)
Unlucky to be on the losing side, Clarke came out of Gloucester’s match against Leicester with real credit. He was a threat as a carrier, targeting the space and keeping phases alive, linked up play well and was effective in defence, both with his line-speed and his ability to drive ball-carriers backwards. He could not have done much more to throw his name into the mix with Jake Polledri, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Ackermann, when all three are fit.
- Tom Curry, Sale Sharks (68)
Curry was a force at the breakdown on Friday night and it was his play, as much as anyone else’s, that got Saracens out of their comfort zone. He slowed down ball at the breakdown and denied the reigning champions the quick ball that they thrive off in attack. Equally, his presence meant that Saracens had to commit numbers to the contact area, something which they usually don’t need to do and thus tend to benefit from having a larger number of players on their feet and ready to contribute in the loose, both in attack and defence. He measured at a 90 on jackal and an 85 on tackle turnover on the RPI this week.
As good as Curry’s performance was, Wasps’ Thomas Young also deserves an honourable mention for his individual excellence at the Ricoh against Northampton.
- Zach Mercer, Bath (67)
There could be no qualms if this spot were to go to Dombrandt, who was excellent once again, but the job Mercer did in a pack that were struggling get front-foot ball, was exceptional. Worcester’s defence close to the ruck was effective all game and it seemed as though Mercer was the only player capable of unlocking it. He carried for over seven times as many metres as the other seven starting Bath forwards combined and clocked up 22 carries compared to their 23 combined as unit, in an incredibly hard-working performance.
Raw power from @Mercer8Zach ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) January 6, 2019
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